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The Films Of The Coen Brothers: A Retrospective

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 4, 2013 at 11:32AM

Are Joel & Ethan Coen the best American filmmakers of their generation? It's probably a silly question to pose, but we'll be damned if we can think of better candidates. Since their startling neo-noir debut "Blood Simple" (which turns three decades old next year), they've been behind a brace of firmly original pictures which couldn't have been made by anyone else (as every dire attempt by others to make a "Coens-esque" imitation has proven). And though there have been a few blips (most notably a patch in the mid 00s generally regarded as the duo being off their game, though the films have their defenders), they've kept up a remarkably consistent level of quality over the years, with multiple classics, of which their 16th film, "Inside Llewyn Davis," is only the latest.
21
O Brother Where Art Thou

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000)
Probably tied with "Raising Arizona" as the Coens’ silliest, most slapsticky entry in their filmography, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was also their most musical film prior to “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The brothers’ second collaboration with T-Bone Burnett yielded a number one record, with its renditions of “good old-timey music” from Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, The Whites and Allison Krauss. In addition to that famous soundtrack, it’s packed full of, well, everything—a yodeling John Turturro, a KKK lynch mob, a trio of sirens, a flash flood, Baby Face Nelson and mountains of Dapper Dan pomade—all amidst a Depression-era retelling of Homer’s “Odyssey.” George Clooney stars as Ulysses Everett McGill, an escaped convict accompanied in his quest by fellow prisoners Pete (Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson). Clooney wasn’t quite the A-lister he is now, but his first work with the fraternal filmmakers allowed him to be goofier than audiences had seen him be. He gamely lip syncs along with Dan Tyminsky’s vocals, obsesses over his hair and pontificates about subjects he pretends to be knowledgeable about. Clooney is a highlight, but we obsess over Roger Deakins’ dusty, gold-tinged cinematography and the weirdly wonderful script that gives supporting cast members like John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Charles Durning and Stephen Root plenty to play with. It’s an odd but strangely accessible film that can feel episodic at times, but we still laugh and marvel more than a decade later. [A-]

The Man Who Wasn't There

“The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001)
One of the more frequently overlooked Coens gems, possibly because of its glum tone and black-and-white cinematography (which reaches an almost velveteen level of richness), "The Man Who Wasn't There" is also one of the filmmakers' most essential works, a portrait of a man existentially adrift that also includes a number of references to UFOs, a scheme involving dry cleaning, plus a murder/blackmail plot and the electric chair. Billy Bob Thornton plays a barber in the late '40s whose suspects his wife (Frances McDormand, of course) is cheating on him with her boss (James Gandolfini). At the same time a mystery man comes to him with a unique business proposal for a new process called "dry cleaning;" so Thornton decides to blackmail Gandolfini for the money, threatening to expose his philandering ways. Of course things go wrong, like murderously wrong. The Coens were inspired by the work of novelist James M. Cain, who wrote "Double Indemnity" and is one of the hardboiled crime that would inspire film noir. But of course, this being a Coens movie, it's not a straight ahead film noir, but one that uses the tropes for an altogether weirder, more cosmic end. "The Man Who Wasn't There" still feels relatively undiscovered, like a giant dinosaur skeleton sitting just below a popular fast food restaurant. But hopefully, its time will come, and soon. It's one of the brothers' very best films, and one of their oddest (also look for an early Scarlett Johannson performance in a role too good to give away). [A]

Intolerable Cruelty

“Intolerable Cruelty” (2003)
After dabbling with “Sullivan’s Travels”-type comedy in “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and noir in “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” the Coen brothers were set to explore another ‘40s Hollywood staple—the war movie—in their next picture. After plans to adapt James Dickey’s “To The White Sea” (about a tail gunner wandering through northern Japan during the final months of World War II) fell through, they went from actual war to a war of words when they signed on to direct a “battle of the sexes” screwball comedy. Set in the modern day, “Intolerable Cruelty” had passed through the likes of Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme, with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in mind for the leads. While that reads like the makings of a standard, tropey romantic comedy, the Coens in their script rewrites and direction brought a sharp-witted sparring quality that set the film apart. Starring Coen regular George Clooney as a hot-shot divorce attorney famous for his signature iron-clad pre-nup (“The Massey Pre-Nup”), he meets his match in a stunning, bordering-on-sadistic divorcee played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is out to destroy him after he thwarted her plans to get rich off of her philandering, easily-manipulated, and most importantly, rich ex-husband. The plot spirals into elaborate schemes involving false marriages, signing and tearing up pre-nups, private eyes, a hitman, Coen favorites Billy Bob Thornton and Richard Jenkins alongside underappreciated supporting work by Edward “Go-To Rich Guy” Hermann and Geoffrey Rush With the at-odds chemistry not always coming off well and the at times too-zany plot twists and turns (though in these regards, it’s still better than “The Ladykillers” by a very long shot), “Intolerable Cruelty” left critics divided over whether the Coens should have tackled the genre at all (golddigging is so passe), let alone whether they did it well, and the film can barely stand against the screwball comedies of yesteryear it was trying to emulate. That said, although it is certainly not the most illustrious or the most beloved on this list, “Intolerable Cruelty” is a more fun than its reputation suggests, even if it ultimately comes across as a big-studio Coens imitation, rather than the real deal. [B-]

The Ladykillers

“The Ladykillers” (2004)
After two decades creating some of the most original and idiosyncratic stories to unfold onscreen, in the early aughts it began to look like the Coens were starting to run low on ideas. Though it had started as a simple rewrite job, in 2003 they were talked into directing “Intolerable Cruelty” by star George Clooney, and the following year found themselves behind-the-camera once again after their old DP Barry Sonnenfeld passed on their script for an update of the 1955 Ealing Studios black comedy “The Ladykillers.” The film revolves around a group of criminals who rob a riverboat casino via an underground tunnel and then plot to murder the old lady who catches them in the act. At the time of its release, reviews were tepid but not horrible (55% on Rotten Tomatoes), but with nearly a decade of hindsight, “The Ladykillers” can now officially be recognized as the low point in the Coens career and most likely the worst film they will ever make. Admittedly, watching Tom Hanks devour the Coens dialogue is a highlight, it’s just a shame he didn’t get a better film in which to do it. Like ‘Cruelty,’ this featured none of the Coen regulars who had inhabited every single film of theirs up until that point—John Goodman, Frances McDormand, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Holly Hunter, Jon Polito, etc.—and seemed to find them without a rudder. They seem to be pitching for an imagined “wide audience” who might’ve turned up for jokes about “hippedy hop” and IBS, but these attempts to go broad fall flat. As Richard Roeper said at the time, “Most of this stuff isn't worthy of the Farrelly brothers, let alone the Coen brothers.” Ouch. Though it did end up as their second biggest box office hit up to that point, with just $39 million it torpedoed Tom Hanks’ 10 year streak of leading $100+ million grossers. Ironically, it may have been necessary for the Coens to hit rock bottom just so that they could recalibrate and return a short 3 years later with renewed focus (and their first Best Picture Oscar) in “No Country For Old Men.” [D]

Paris Je T'Aime Coens

“Paris, je t'aime” -  segment "Tuileries" (2006)
Each section in the fun but ultimately uneven anthology "Paris je t'aime" is named and set in a different neighborhood (or arrondissement) of Paris. The Coens, of course, chose a subway stop for their arrondissement, and of course, had it star Steve Buscemi as a perplexed tourist trying to navigate the Parisian subway system while trying to avoid getting beat up. (He fails.) The short has an almost giddy energy, and it's amusing to see the Coens address the fact that they love torturing (and in most cases, killing) their frequent collaborator Buscemi. This is an inessential but still quite funny bit of Coens miscellanea, capturing some of the zonked out energy of their earlier work and a winning performance by Buscemi. [B] 

This article is related to: Features, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Essentials


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